Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)

--The blurb--
"A student from Boston wins a guest editorship on a national magazine, and finds a new world at her feet. Her New York life is crowded with possibilities, so the choice of future is overwhelming. She is faced with the perennial problems of morality, behaviour and identity."

--The review--
Upon reaching university, I quickly found that I was an intrinsic reader: being only mildly interested in background information, I much preferred the sounds of the words in my mouth and ears, the look of them on the page, and the overall beauty of the work itself. By the end of my degree, my patience with symbolism (whether imagined by overzealous lecturers, or real) was wearing thin. It was this lack of tolerance for extrinsic reading that partly stopped me from pursuing postgraduate studies in English literature.

However, for some authors and their respective works, extrinsic reading simply cannot be helped. It is extremely difficult to read the works of Sylvia Plath (and, by default, those of Ted Hughes) without deferring to the experiences and circumstances which inspired them. However, this is perhaps more applicable to their poetry, with it being quite possible to read The Bell Jar without knowing any of Plath's history. Knowing it, though, means that it is no surprise that the main character's descent into mental illness is realistically painted, being gradual and speckled with very real paranoia and depression.

While the novel is overall rather pretentious, and perhaps would have been better without the inclusion of Doreen, Esther's sexually liberated best friend, as it seemed like Plath was trying too hard to reinforce cultural elements that would have been more of a novelty at the time, there are still plenty of reasons why The Bell Jar is worth attention. As well as Plath successfully sustaining the novel's intensity in a very controlled way, the ending is also sublime and appropriate, as is her strikingly poetic description of the landscape, which is utilised from the very beginning.

This novel is certainly not perfect - as well as the above criticisms, I would have preferred it if Plath had left the reader to decipher her reasons for choosing the title by themselves (as Rossetti does for her poems), rather than name-dropping it at every opportunity. However, it offers a rare and realistic insight into mental illness - though it is perhaps the imagery and eloquence used by Plath that make the book a classic.

Other works by Sylvia Plath
The Colossus and other Poems (1960)
Ariel (1965)
Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
Crossing the Water (1971)
Winter Trees (1972)
Letters Home (1975)
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977)

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